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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Highlighting The Gap in labor conditions

Highlighting The Gap in labor conditions

MANAGEMENT at the garment factory which produces clothes for US giant The Gap staged

a "theater play" for visiting US trade representatives, masking the reality

of poor working conditions, according to workers and union officials.

During the January visit, Tack Fat garment workers who appeared young were told to

hide in the toilet, employees were told to take their time and work slowly, and were

sent home at 4pm - rather than 6 or 9pm, as is more usual - employees claim.

"On that day, we were told not to be in a rush... in my department they were

not as strict as they are normally when the delegation visited," reported one

worker.

"The young workers like me were told to stay in the toilet," said a youthful-looking

employee. Asked her age, she claimed to be 18. "But all the people who look

like me were told to stay there."

Conditions are generally poor in this particular factory, claimed union leader Ou

Mary. "The workers there are forced to work 13 or 14 hours a day; when they

are sick, and faint from working, nobody takes care of them," said the president

of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC).

"Tack Fat... arranged a theater play for the representatives," she claimed.

"During the visit, the workers were afraid to complain to the delegation. If

they did so, then maybe 15 minutes after the visit they might be fired."

Labels smuggled out of the factory show that clothes are being produced for the US

clothing chain The Gap and its subsidiary, Old Navy.

"We have to get The Gap to put pressure on Cambodia to change working conditions,"

noted Seng Phally, executive director of the Cambodian Labor Organization, an NGO

monitoring working conditions.

Administrative staff at the Tack Fat factory refused to speak to the Post or to accept

a written request for an interview. The US embassy declined to comment.

Worker representatives from Tack Fat and other factories did meet separately with

the US delegation to complain about their working conditions, Ou Mary said.

Complaints include forced overtime without overtime pay; inadequate or nonexistent

sick, holiday or maternity leave; short and infrequent toilet breaks; payment of

less than the $40 per month minimum wage; and harassment, beating or firing of employees

who organize unions or complain about conditions.

Such noncompliance with the labor law is a problem in many factories, according to

the FTUWKC and the Cambodian Labor Organization.

The delegation signed a Jan 20 agreement with the government, setting quotas on some

items. Significantly, the agreement also requires the government to improve factory

conditions, to be monitored by the International Labor Organization.

One trade expert called the inclusion of labor conditionality "precedent-setting"

on the part of the US. At present the ILO does not have an office here, only a project,

but the proposed plan for monitoring would involve a two-year ILO technical presence.

At the moment, inspection is the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Affairs

and Labor. Deputy Director of Labor Inspection Hout Chanthy explained that the inspection

department conducts yearly, pre-announced checks on each factory but also does surprise

special checks if it receives complaints.

"We think of our personal delegation as our secret agents," he said, noting

that workers sometimes slip inspectors notes of complaint during regular checks,

which are then followed up with a surprise visit. "If we do not do personal

checks, we cannot know about the problems in the factory."

However, union officials say that the government's work is not good enough.

"So far, the government of Cambodia always promises they'll take good care of

the workers, force owners to follow the labor code ... but it's very, very soft [enforcement]

so far," said a FTUWKC official who declined to be named.

Union officials and those who work with them say they have a very hard time meeting

with factory owners to raise grievances. In addition, union leader Ou Mary and CLO

director Seng Phally both say they and their staff have been followed and sometimes

feel under threat.

Labor groups such as the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and the AFL-CIO have

lobbied the US government to rescind Cambodia's GSP privileges, citing lack of workers'

rights, especially to organize in unions.

A June 1998 ILRF petition, alleging government interference in union elections, burdensome

requirements for union formation, and intimidation, asked the Office of the US Trade

Representative to rescind GSP.

"To date, the Cambodian government has not demonstrated sufficient evidence

of enforcement or intention to enforce the new labor law to warrant extension of

GSP privileges," reads the petition.

"In particular, workers' legal rights to associate freely and bargain collectively

... have been actively discouraged by the Cambodian government."

Hout Chanthy, however, maintained that the government is doing its best for the workers.

"Some say my department and the employers collude with each other and set up

the workers' representatives, but in reality no, the representatives are voted for

by the workers," he said.

"Some political people want to cut off GSP, but I think it is not good for the

situation. If we cut off GSP, what about the 70-80,000 workers, 85 percent of whom

are women with no education?"

He feels that education on the labor code and aggressive followup on complaints are

the keys to improving worker rights.

"My telephone is on 24 hours a day," he said. While acknowledging that

workers may be too afraid of being sacked to complain during inspection visits, he

stressed that workers can call or write and make anonymous complaints. "Why

should they be afraid?"

Yet union officials say the Ministry has not publicized this option. "The rank

and file do not know how to contact the inspection people, only the trade unions,"

said Chuon Mom Thol, president of the Cambodian Union Federation.

Chanthy said his department makes about 800 inspection calls a year; last year about

40 employers - mostly garment factories - were fined for noncompliance with the labor

code.

"Last year three factories did not pay the fine, and we filed the case with

the court. The Ministry of Commerce rescinded their COs [certificates of origin,

cutting off their ability to export]." The factories have since paid up and

cleaned up their act, he said.

Yet he admits his underfunded, overworked department has its share of difficulties.

Bribery of underpaid inspectors is a continuing problem, and a planned TV show on

worker rights may prove prohibitively expensive.

The ILO's regional project is trying to fill the gap, training over 3000 trainers

to educate their peers on worker rights and the labor code. But project coordinator

Noun Rithy reported that six participants in the workshops were subsequently wrongfully

dismissed from their factories.

"It is unacceptable - we train these people, and hope when they go back they

spread their knowledge; on the contrary, these people were fired." Rithy said

he has referred the case to the Ministry of Labor, which is preparing a court case.

Workers outside the Zhing Yong factory did not need workshops to advise them of their

rights. Huddled under towels to protect them from the harsh sunlight as they ate

a thin vegetable soup on the roadside, a group of young women said they were perfectly

aware that their rights were being violated when they were forced to work overtime

without pay, got sick from the workplace, or could not take sick leave.

Yet one worker said: "We do not complain; if we do, the management will not

do anything, and we are afraid we will be fired ... we know overtime is against the

law, but we don't know what to do."

"Yes, we have a union," another worker attested. "But these leaders

seem to be very afraid of the Chinese owner."

A Zhing Yong representative, identifying himself as Mr. Slim, said he was "too

busy" to speak to the Post.

For their part, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia say they are committed

to bettering workers' lives.

"We have every intention to improve labor standards... however, ongoing things

have to be improved over time, like in every country," said GMAC secretary-general

Roger Tan.

In the meantime, garment workers struggle on with what they say is little bargaining

power to ameliorate their conditions.

"Sometimes we get angry, we say we are slaves," said one garment worker.

Until labor conditions improve, "we don't want customers to buy the clothes."

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